HTC Vive Review

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VR is no fad, it’s not 3D TV or another gimmicky tech product. VR is real. VR is fucking amazing, and it’s going to change everything.

The Rise and fall, and resurrection of VR

Back when I was a wee lad, video games were everything. They were a way of life. Literally. In the summer days of the mid-90’s my daily schedule revolved around when I could go to the mall arcade, “Tilt”, and waste what little money I had playing Mortal Kombat II, Killer Instinct, X-Men, and Cruis’n USA. Just like many of you, I have many a fond arcade memory.

At some point, back in the 90’s, the first VR arcades starting popping up in nearby shopping malls. I remember watching in awe as lucky kids and parents strapped on gigantic, clunky, VR helmets and held big ass plastic joysticks to play an early VR shoot’em game. The experience was expensive and probably horrible, but it was “real” virtual reality, what could be cooler than that?

Due mostly to limitations in 90’s technology, VR back then was shit, it was an arduous task . It was big, bulky, and the games were pretty horrible compared to some of the AAA titles of the day.

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VR back in the early to mid-90’s was really…uhhh…something.

The 90’s was decade of virtual reality hopes and dreams that were about 20 years premature. The ideas and thought were there, but the technology limitations of the time made it impossible to have enjoyable VR experience. But that didn’t stop the media from cashing in on what they thought was the next big thing in entertainment. In the mid-90’s, VR was fucking everywhere, if you’re a sci-fi fan. Lawnmower Man, Virtuosity, Jurassic Park, Johnny Mnemonic, Hackers (HACK THE PLANET!) were just a few movies to utilize VR in some fashion.

Long story short, VR was a colossal failure, industry-wide. Hello, Virtual Boy! But, it wasn’t for lack of effort, it’s just not something the tech industry was equipped to deal with. The technology advancements and infrastructure required to make VR an enjoyable experience for the masses didn’t exist until, well…basically right now.

Advancement’s in computer processing, video games, optics, display technologies, and various other disciplines have made VR the possibility it is today. For the vast majority of the population, it’s not an affordable technology, but it will be in time. New technologies are usually aimed at enthusiasts and developers, so the point of entry will remain high until components become cheaper to manufacture and VR adoption rates increase across the board. Playstation VR (and their 40 million+ user base) will aid in bringing the platform to the masses. Competition is a good thing for VR. The more content and hardware developed for VR, the better off everyone will be.

The HTC Vive and the ever illusive Oculus Rift carry some steep price tags. Priced at $800 and $600 respectively, add-on $700-1,000 for an adequate gaming PC, and you have quite a massive cost of entry for most consumers. Which is why adoption rates will probably remain low (for non-PC gamers) for the time being. But if you still think VR is expensive, try and keep this in mind. Back in 1982, the price of the first commercially available CD players were in the upper $700’s, or about $1,700 adjusted for inflation! Basically about the same as it would cost you to enter the VR market today, and that’s assuming you had absolutely nothing to begin with.

HTC Vive Review

Holy shit, where to start? In all my 30+ years on this earth, I have never been as excited for a product launch as I was for the Vive and the Rift. Maybe the launch of the Nintendo 64, but certainly nothing in the past 20 years. The anticipation was excruciating. But at long last, real, consumer VR is finally here, and it is fucking fantastic.

Pre-ordering. The Launch. The Rift and Changing Minds

Despite a few hiccups and strange oddities, the HTC Vive launch has gone quite smoothly for a first of its kind product launch. They got more right than wrong their first go around. Sure, HTC has messed up more than a few orders, but compared to the shitstorm that is the Oculus Rift’s product launch, the vast majority of customers can feel good about how the launch went down.

After ordering in early April (4th to be exact) it took just about a month to receive my Vive. In comparison, Oculus Rift orders and pre-orders have not gone smoothly at all, to say the least.

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The Oculus Rift. Here today, gone tomorrow.

I had originally pre-ordered the Oculus Rift, which is why I didn’t order the Vive until a month after pre-orders went live. I pre-ordered the Rift within the first 5 minutes of actually getting the pre-order page to load and credit card payment processed. Like many, I was pumped. I fully expected to get my Rift within a week of launch, easily. Holy shit, was I ever wrong. Unfortunately, this was just the tip of the frozen shitsicle.

Due to a secret “component shortage”, almost all Rift units were significantly delayed, some several months. Which led to community outrage, and a whole bunch of canceled pre-orders. Despite the delays, I was actually one of the lucky ones, I received my Rift about a month after the first Rifts began shipping (which was good considering the circumstances). But as it turns out, the delay was actually a blessing in disguise. The launch delay gave me plenty of time to check out reviews and really analyze which HMD (head mounted display) was right for me. I was a 24/7 resident of r/oculus and r/vive subreddits for damn near a month.

Unfortunately for Oculus, the delay gave me a little too much time to think and ponder. I was ready to go, day one, team Oculus FTW! The Vive was “too expensive” and “not worth it”. But after a few weeks, I began to question if I made the right decision. After watching multiple reviews, and tech/gameplay demos, I realized that if I wanted a true VR experience, the VR experience I had always dreamed of, I was going to need to pick up a Vive. Just like that, the Rift was dead to me.

So, long story short, I sold my Rift before I could even get a chance to open it. As a huge bonus, I made enough from the sale of my Rift to basically pay for the entire Vive. Say what you will about resellers, but I don’t feel bad about making money from someone that willing to pay more for something than it is technically worth. If I see a quick and highly lucrative money making opportunity, you bet your ass I’m gonna take it. The only drawback was that I had to wait a few more weeks to experience VR. 2 weeks later and the Vive was in my hands. Selling the Rift was probably one of the best/easiest decisions I have ever made.

Just so we are clear, I wish no ill will towards Oculus, an unsuccessful VR campaign from Oculus is bad for VR in general. I want the VR platform to succeed, and for that to happen, both Oculus and HTC/Valve need to succeed. I just hope Oculus can somehow right the ship, mend their torn relationships, and remove the bad tastes left in the mouths of their most diehard fanbase.

Do you have what it takes?

The Vive requires a beefy gaming PC to run smoothly. I do not recommend skimping on the recommended specs. Check out my VR gaming PC build guide if you’re interested in building your own VR capable PC. You can overlook recommended PC specs for traditional PC games (you can always adjust settings), but the same cannot always be said for VR. You don’t want to run VR on a shitty computer. Poor framerates will literally ruin your entire VR experience. There is a little wiggle room here and there, but ideally, you want to be at or above the recommended specifications.

Setup

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The HTC Vive packaging is very premium feeling and fucking gigantic.

The Vive comes packaged in an enormous, beautifully designed box. Inside the box, you will find a whole bunch of shit in semi-opaque plastic bags. It’s a lot to organize and set up, but luckily it’s not that hard if you already know where your base stations are going.

I HIGHLY recommend you have a plan in place for mounting and positioning your base stations before you purchase the Vive. In order to have the full Vive experience, you’re going to need quite a bit of room, preferably an entire room. At the absolute minimum, you will need to set aside 2 meters x 1.5 meters (6.5 x 5 ft) for your play area. Your play area should be free from any obstacles, cats, dogs, bongs, bookshelves, tables, chairs, etc. You will need a flat square or rectangle of some sort.

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The HTC Vive base stations.

You will also need to figure out where to mount your base stations. You can mount them to any rigid object that doesn’t move or wobble. There are an infinite number of ways to mount your base stations, but depending on your room and restrictions (nail/screw holes), you may need to get creative. Just make sure they are well above head height, or a minimum of 6 ft.

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This is all of the shit that comes in the box. Don’t feel overwhelmed, it will all make sense soon.

I would also recommend pre-installing any software you intend to use with your Vive. You can pre-install Steam and/or Steam VR before you get the headset. Just don’t bother running setup before you get your Vive. It’ll be one less thing to do when going through the setup process. You can download and install everything you need directly from HTC here.

I won’t get too detailed into the setup. There are numerous Vive setup guides and instructional videos to help you out. But in general, for me personally, setup was a breeze, and mostly stress-free. I was actually surprised by how well the whole setup process went. Position the lighthouses, plug this into that, and this into that (slightly more complicated than that), mark your territory, bada-bing, bada-boom, all done. That was it. Time to put the mask on.

The time has finally come. Years of anticipation, thousands of dollars spent in preparation (not required) have all come down to this moment. VR was about to get real.

Enter the Matrix

Welcome, to the VR world. Firing up steam VR for the first time isn’t something I’m likely to forget anytime soon. Unless you’ve experienced the Rift DK1, 2, or CV1, there is truly no way to explain what being inside of a real VR simulation/game is like. No video can do it justice, and no photo can truly represent what VR is really like. Which is one of the biggest obstacles facing VR as a platform. It must be seen to be believed and/or appreciated.

A quick word to haters and trolls. I see far too many of you on YouTube and various social networks. If you are one of those naysayers, passing judgment on VR before trying, I’ve got news for you. Not only are you incredibly naive, but you are doing a disservice to yourself. Regardless of your opinion of VR, if you can’t jump into the theBlu and somehow not find any joy in your experience, then you probably have no pulse, and I truly feel sorry for you. I would assume that you’re the type of person who would eat their entire meal at a restaurant, complain that the food wasn’t any good, and demand a refund. Give it a shot before being a bitch. That’s all I have to say about that.

If you have ever dreamed of being inside of a video game, then your dream is about to come true. This is how I can best describe being inside of the Vive. It doesn’t quite feel “real”, it still feels like a video game or simulation. But were getting really damn close to blurring the lines, especially when you are completely immersed. Considering the fact that we are currently at the forefront of VR development, there is a lot to be excited about in the future.

If you compare a Xbox 360 launch title like Perfect Dark Zero to something like Halo 4 or Destiny. You will find little comparison. It’s the same hardware, but the software has had years to evolve and mature. As a platform ages, it usually gets orders of magnitudes better. Assuming adoption rates keep rising, I fully expect the same for VR. It’s already great, and we’re still at the launch title level.

Once you are inside the Matrix virtual reality, it’s quite easy to become immersed and forget that you are actually inside of a computer simulation. The only reminders of the outside world come from the Vive’s chaperone grid, the occasional loss of tracking, and occasionally bumping into shit.

VR differs from video games in this aspect. Memories of VR feel more like they were from an actual event, rather than something viewed from a computer monitor or TV. I’ve had some pretty immersive experiences from standard PC games, but they all pale in comparison to the Vive.

The Vive HMD

Say what you will about the aesthetics of today’s VR headset’s, but I happen to think that the Vive HMD looks pretty damn cool. It’s not quite as streamlined as the Rift, but it is unique looking, to say the least.

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The sexy HTC Vive HMD

Here’s another impossible to answer question. What is it like to look through the Vive? Once again, you have to experience it for yourself, but I will do my best to describe what I see. Once the Vive is adjusted for your face and eyesight, the first thing you will notice is the pixelation. Chill out, just hang with me.

The Vive resolution is the biggest immersion buster for me personally. But that does not mean its bad, it’s just the way it has to be right now. You only notice the pixelation for the first few moments with the Vive, after that, your brain tends to dismiss the pixelation to focus on other things. It kinda like watching a movie at a movie theater. At first, you are fully conscious of your surroundings, but once you get into the movie, you forget that you are even in a theater. The pixelation is simply that assface that can’t stop talking or the kid that keeps on kicking the back of your seat. Every now and then you are reminded of its presence, but it’s hardly noticeable in most games, you just drown it out.

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Did I mention you’ll need a beastly rig? The GTX 980TI packs plenty of power for VR.

There are many reasons why the Vive and Rift share an identical resolution. Cost is a big factor, but processing power is an even bigger factor. In order to display games at 2160 x 1200 resolution, at a minimum of 90 FPS, you need a fairly decent gaming rig. At the time of launch that meant purchasing a $300 graphics card in combination with a fairly modern CPU. The minimum cost to build a capable PC was around $700-800, if you really knew your shit. $1,000+ if you were looking at a pre-built system.

Now imagine this, if the resolution of the Vive was say 2880 x 1600 (made up QHD numbers) you probably would have needed a minimum of a GTX 980TI or Titan X. This would have significantly increased the total cost of ownership. Requiring a $600 GTX 980TI as a minimum spec wouldn’t have done wonders for an emerging platform. This would have put VR even further out of reach for the vast majority of the PC gaming population. VR was already asking a lot from the consumer, going higher resolution would have been asking for way too much. This is why I am perfectly fine with the resolution of the Vive. It’s what it had to be.

The Controllers

The controllers look clunky and big, and they kinda are, but they are every bit as amazing as the Vive HMD itself. Like the HMD, the controllers are tracked via the lighthouse system (base stations). The precision of the tracking is absolutely remarkable, and that accuracy translates to the headset. Viewing the controllers through the headset is almost like viewing them in real life. Touch one controller to the other and the touch exactly where you would expect them to. Their size, scale and position perfectly translate to the virtual world. It may seem like a little thing, but it’s one of the most amazing aspects of the Vive in my opinion.

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The Vive controllers are amazing.

The Vive controllers are how you interact with the VR world, their use and functionality change based upon the type game/simulation. In Space Pirate Trainer, each controller wields a futuristic blaster and/or shield. In Google’s Tilt Brush, the controller becomes a virtual paint brush and a palette. The controllers are extensions of your body in the VR space, their usefulness is only limited by the imagination of the developer.

The controllers feel well built and sturdy. Though I have not dropped a controller on my wood floors just yet, I feel like they would be OK if that happened. The wrist straps found on the controllers are a different story.

There have been numerous reports of the Vive wrist straps breaking away while playing some of the more physically intensive games, namely a game called Holoball. I’ve never had a problem with things slipping out of my hands, I’d like to think that I have a pretty firm grip. So I can’t really speak on the matter. But if you’re the dipshit/clumsy type, or you’ve broken a few TV’s and/or windows over the years by letting the Wiimote slip out of your hands, then you might want to replace your straps with something a bit stronger. In fact, I highly recommend you replace them with some Wii straps. Use you old straps or pick of some cheap straps from Amazon. Just about anything you buy will probably provide more protection than the included straps. I replaced mine because I thought that HTC did go a little thin on the fishing line straps for the Vive. But it’s up to you. I would always wear them, just so you don’t accidently drop them on the floor, but if you’re pretty sure of your grip, you’ll probably be OK.

Is it $800 fun?

The Vive isn’t cheap, the computer to run a Vive is not cheap. The minimum cost of entry is $800 for the Vive itself, so is it worth it? Quick answer yes, but it all depends on you. If you have the play space, the cash, and enjoy bleeding edge technology. Then there is no single gadget that I could recommend more than the Vive. It’s that cool, and a huge conversation starter. Watching people react to being inside VR for the first time is almost as fun as being inside yourself.

Every single person I have demoed the Vive for has come away with the same basic conclusion. “It’s awesome”, “so much fun”, and “I need to get one” are the most common responses. Everyone single person has come away impressed. But that doesn’t mean its all good. There are certainly some negatives as well.

There are some shit games available for the Vive, cash grabs from small developers because they are the first to market with a shitty bowling game. I have no problem with that, but when a developer wants $20 for an uninspired, glorified tech demo, I get a little pissed. But luckily the good games far outnumber the shit.

The other problem is motion sickness. This is more a problem with VR in general. Despite good intentions from everyone, VR motion sickness is something that you are likely to come across at least a few times during your first few weeks of experimentation. If you like to try different kinds of experiences, then a little VR motion sickness is likely to occur at some point if you are susceptible.

Most people tend to develop their “VR legs” the more they are exposed to VR. Basically, you just gotta get used to it. But not all games are prone to motion sickness. I would say that most Vive games do a great job at keeping your stomach from churning. Games with simulated motion, like racing/flying games, are the ones that tend to leave you a bit queasy. This is why most Vive experiences incorporate a teleport locomotion mechanic that can instantly transport you from one location to another.

What about the games?

Virtual reality is more than just games. VR can be anything. There are VR movies, educational experiences, simulations, hell, you can even develop for VR inside of VR. Virtual reality is and will continue to expand beyond gaming, but for our purposes, I will focus mainly on gaming and simulations you can find in Steam VR.

Every single day the Vive content library grows, and every single day, content gets better. Currently, the vast majority Vive development is comprised of individuals, small development teams, and/or indie studios. I hope you like Steam early access because you are going to see a whole shit load of titles in this state. It’s not a bad thing, but most games are still in their development state. These games tend to lack the fit, finish, and polish of larger studio titles, but they can still provide plenty of entertainment. Most are arcade style, have little to no plot, and can be played in bits and pieces. Most VR games are like mobile games, they tend to be short, and can easily be picked up or put down whenever you feel like it. Which is good, but if you are looking for substance, there isn’t a whole lot to choose from right now.

There are a few “big” AAA publishers producing content for the Vive, but most of these titles are still in development and may not launch until next year. The most notable content from an AAA publisher is The Lab which was produced by Valve. It’s a glimpse of what is possible when larger studios step into VR. The Lab is one of the best looking and most finished games on Steam VR right now.

Other big publishers are starting to jump on board. At E3 2016 Bethesda surprised everyone and announced that they will be developing a VR version of Fallout 4, which is due out in sometime 2017. This is big news considering that one of the largest and most beloved publishers is supporting VR. This is the kind of major studio support that the platform needs to succeed. It’s a killer title that I am sure will become a must-own on the Vive platform.

Wrap Up

The HTC Vive is an unbelievable piece of technology. It’s not for everyone, but if you love technology, have the cash and the space, then you are going to love the Vive. We’re on the ground floor of the next revolution in gaming, entertainment, and education. Considering how good it is already, I can’t image where we will be in 5-10 years. Personally, I can’t wait to find out.